The War on Children
Violence turns Israeli kids’ lives upside down
By Stephanie L. Freid, San Francisco Chronicle, December 24, 2006
Thousands of students in Southern Israel have missed school this year because of the barrage of rockets near their homes. Half a million students in Northern Israel were affected by the war with Hezbollah last summer.
“Only now — two months into the school year — are we beginning to see the (deeper) effects of the war,” said Bilha Noy, head of the Psychological and Counseling Department for Israel’s Ministry of Education. “Children are having trouble concentrating, and for roughly 5 percent, return to so-called normal life has not happened.”
Because Israel’s school system attempts to function as an ideological extension of parenting, when war with Lebanon erupted during summer vacation teachers and psychologists sprang into action visiting students hiding out in bomb shelters.
“What we encountered were frightened kids who were very attached to their parents. Kids who refused to leave the shelters. There was regression with bed wetting and nightmares. All normal for an abnormal situation,” Noy said. “Generally if a parent is calm, the child is also calm. But when rockets are hitting. …”
The International Organization for Analytical Psychology says highly stressful situations threaten our natural laws of order, triggering automatic body mechanisms commonly referred to as Flight, Fight and Freeze responses. In the face of danger humans either run, tackle the danger or become immobile.
While the perceived threat is fresh, verbalizing the experience is generally difficult or impossible. When the threat abates, normal responses like talking things out or going back to daily routines resume. A small percentage of the trauma-affected, however, are unable to get back to that normal place and instead remain polarized in extreme states of depressed apathy or hyper-awareness/reactivity to external stimuli.
As the school year approached, the Education Ministry held training workshops where teachers learned to ask the critical questions — “Where were you when it was happening? How do you feel about it? Was your father or another family member called up? Was your life in danger?” — and to recognize telltale signs of distress: apathy, violence and inability to concentrate.
“This might be a difference between the U.S. and here,” Noy said. In the United States, “there’s no time to prepare teachers if a shooting happens. We were already semi-prepared here because constant security threats are a part of our society; we deal with trauma on an ongoing basis. But in today’s world there are so many traumas a child is exposed to — divorce, death, rape, natural accidents, illness — that it’s hard to say what may be most impacting.”
Education Ministry chief coordinator Shmuel Har Noy said an extra 50 million shekels ($12 million) was budgeted for this academic year to cover costs of counseling, professional training and hiring 100 additional staff psychologists. Art and physical education instructors factored heavily into the healing equation.
“Trauma is absorbed and held in the body, and we know that you can get rid of it through the physical release of energy. Animals do it spontaneously when they shake after a traumatic event,” Noy explains. “Our sports, art and literature teachers have been specifically using physical exercise, drawing, building, handiwork and writing as tools for therapeutic aims. The results have been very positive.”
Chaya Raviv, chief psychologist at the Education Ministry’s Northern District, says that initially students seemed less affected by the summer war than was expected. As the academic year progressed, she and her staff began noting telltale post-trauma signs.
“Kindergarten-age children are exhibiting in games and sport — sometimes violent, sometimes themed around war and bomb shelters — and through drawings of their experiences,” Noy said. Older children ask questions, baring insecurities surrounding issues of vulnerability and protection. “They basically want to know: ‘Am I safe?’ ” she explains.
“My teenage son was terrified of leaving the house during the summer, and we live hundreds of kilometers from the fighting,” said Hana Yaron, a Tel Aviv mother of two. “But with the television, car radio and newspaper headlines constantly blaring bad news, it was too much for him. Now he has developed an overeating problem, and we are fairly certain it’s linked to Lebanon war anxiety.”
Atop the psychological baggage, the political situation is exacting an academic toll. In Israel’s southern town of Sderot, rocket hits are literally putting kids behind in school. “Eleventh- and twelfth-graders will have to undergo intensive study retreats to catch up to their peers nationwide,” Sderot municipal education director Miriam Sassi said.
Noy said older kids are no better off than their younger counterparts. Their concerns are more complicated, philosophical and rhetorical entering realms of faith and morality. High school seniors on the brink of serving compulsory military duty are particularly troubled.
“They’re asking teachers and themselves: ‘Can we trust the military system? Can we trust our leaders? We have to serve in this army, but is it morally right?’ These are questions without answers. Our job is to provide the safe environment for posing the questions.”
Stephanie L. Freid is a writer based in Israel. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.